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Log-jamming in Shin Kiba

by Kit Nagamura

Last month, readers of this column found me frolicking in the sawdust and lumberyards of Shin Kiba — meaning “New Wood Place” — which arose on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay in the 1970s when the city’s timber businesses were moved there from their traditional home in nearby Kiba to make way for rapid urbanization.

At the end of that story, I came upon The Wood and Plywood Museum, but with no space left to cover it. So this time,after exiting the Yurakucho subway line’s Shin Kiba Station, I head off to see what I saw, as it were.

Obscene heat and humidity make walking far more grueling than it was a month ago. Arriving at the Wood Land Tower, home of the museum, I’m basically barbecued. Fortunately, the lobby is air conditioned, and features a large artificial waterfall and a not insubstantial plywood sailboat. Turns out the boat is a replica of The Mermaid, the 5.8-meter craft in which 23-year-old Kenichi Horie made the world’s first solo crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1962. Even noting its hull of Lauan plywood, 14 sheets strong, the vessel still strikes me as a precarious option for crossing the Pacific, and Horie a hero for his success.

The small museum’s free displays are mainly on the third floor of Wood Land Tower, with kids games, a library and video facilities on the fourth. By the elevator, I encounter an eerie sculpture, by artist Hitomi Motoki, titled “Obedience.” It depicts a human body sporting a hound’s head, which looks decidedly disobedient. Still, it suits the dog days of summer, I think, entering the museum.

Displays on worldwide uses of wood, wood types and forest management are almost adjunct to the museum’s main appeal — to celebrate the achievements of Kichijoro Asano, inventor of the mechanized veneer lathe in 1907. Visitors can examine a bust of Asano and all the medals he received for his invention, in addition to a working lathe that’s switched on occasionally for live demonstrations.

I ask enough questions that a staff member whistles up museum director Dr. Takeshi Okano. Okano walks me through the advantages of lathed wood, pointing out how sheets can be used as veneers to cover less attractive materials, or cross-stacked to create plywood, a strong yet flexible product. “It appears that using plywood in house construction makes them less vulnerable to earthquakes,” Okano tells me, “and that, of course, interests us.”

At one point during the tour, Okano places a small green handkerchief on a wooden globe half the size of his body. I ask him if he is planning on polishing the orb. “No,” he laughs, “this cloth represents the sum total area of green forests that we now have left in the world.” It is a sobering visualization.

Before I head off, Okano recommends that I seek out the nearby Hoxan company, which specializes in ultra-thin veneers, and also take a bus to Kukunoki, which sells designer wood products. Thanking Okano, I exit once again into the kiln-like heat.

Luckily, Hoxan is just around the corner, and Yoshiaki Kenmochi, 50, the acting section manager, comes flying down the steps from the second-floor office. I quickly introduce myself. “You know what,” he says, as we squint and sweat in unison, “I am headed to Kukunoki right now, so I’ll give you a lift, then you can find your way back here later.” I gratefully accept.

During the brief drive to the southern edge of Shin Kiba, Kenmochi explains that the owner of Kukunoki, Masahiro Miyajima, used to work for Hoxan, but struck out on his own to sell wooden interior items, many of which utilize Hoxan’s products. At Kukunoki, Kenmochi and I slide out of his car into air thick as mushroom soup.

Miyajima’s 26-year-old son, Yomei, offers us sanctuary inside the fresh white showroom. With his father just out, Yomei instead guides me around the goods: beautifully crafted furniture and sundry lifestyle items, including lamps fashioned from Hoxan-made veneer sheets. There’s a designers’ resort feel to the place, which has a lovely view of Tokyo Gate Bridge and the bay’s blue waters. After Yomei brings an ice coffee, served in one of the store’s featherweight wooden cups, I’m ready to move in.

When Yomei’s father arrives, he and Kenmochi chat a bit, then Masahiro points out two massive slices of cedar. “Those are leftovers from wood used in the recent rebuild of the Kabukiza Theater in Ginza,” he says. “No one wanted them, but I specialize in wood with knots or character; often it’s just as beautiful as the top-grade stuff, but costs a lot less.”

I purchase a few veneer-covered notebooks and notepapers made from wafers of cedar and pine, and then it occurs to me to ask Miyajima if his shop’s name is meant to sound a little, well, cuckoo? He laughs. “Yes, I’m crazy about wood. But I got the name from Kukunochi, the Shinto god of trees. I just changed the last syllable to ki, for tree.”

Miyajima finally does me the huge kindness of driving me all the way back to Hoxan. Once there, he jumps out, too, and we tour the cool showroom — variations on veneers and their myriad uses — with explanations from Yukiko Okasaka from sales promotion.

Founded in 1924, Hoxan specializes in fancy paneling, floorings in parquets, decorative car panels and exterior decks. Its displays are an education in wood grains. Samples of silky oak look like a Mars landscape, wood paneling in burled camphor resembles boiling honey, and a guitar gleams in the ripples of a quilted maple veneer.

When I part company with Hoxan, Miyajima drops me off at Shin Kiba Station. From there, I call up a lumberyard friend from my last month’s BSS, 77-year-old Masaya Iseto, and we meet for sushi at nearby Kibako, his favorite place.

Over pillowy slabs of ōtoro (fatty tuna) —”delicious because we don’t use frozen fish,” owner Nobuyuki Ishikawa boasts — I learn from Iseto about one of Shin Kiba’s anomalies: dance club ageHa.

“We love that club,” Iseto says, speaking for the Shin Kiba lumbermen. “It brings young people here, and they always clean up after themselves.”

Heading over to check it out, I’m fortunate to meet ageHa PR dynamo, Mimi Shimada. “The place is really a concert hall called Studio Coast, and in the evenings from 7-10 p.m. there are hip-hop and J-pop shows, like Boom Boom Satellites,” Shimada says as we stand in the cavernous main concert space below pendulous red speakers and a massive mirror ball. “But Studio Coast also hosts club events, called ageHa, on weekends from 11 p.m. until the morning — and thousands come to them,” she explains.

In fact, I later discover that, throughout its 10-year history to date, ageHa has consistently been ranked as one of the top club events in the world (No. 68 this year) by British-based DJ Magazine.

Shimada shows me the bar — where pole dancers add allure on ageHa nights — and then introduces me to the (David) Lynchian atmosphere of private backrooms for performers and “secret guests,” who have apparently included the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Outside, I tour the venue’s waterfront tables and pool, where a cute guy is scrubbing the tiles. “Your butt is half-showing,” Shimada calls out to him as I snap photos. He just laughs and continues to work. “We hire cute guys like that to attract girls here,” she quips.

AgeHa, it turns out, holds a popular summer event: Bikini Night. Women who dare to bare get in free — and Shimada assures me that hundreds do. “So, do you charge the guys double?” I ask. “That’s a good idea!” she smiles back.

Shimada describes how lovely the rising sun can be from the pool, and hints about a “pink” room of adult toys, but I’ve not brought my bikini, so I thank Mimi and mosey on.

Dusk is falling and a sweet summer breeze has picked up. Heading toward the station, I stop in at a small shop, Moku Moku, which sells portable wood supplies for artisans and artists. I fall in love with a plank of persimmon wood, its lines as lovely as a sumi-ink landscape. Clearly, I’m set to climb aboard a passion for wood in Shin Kiba.

Kit Nagamura will take a break next month, but will be back with Backstreet Stories in September.